Using Gradients to Draw Attention to Your Subject

I frequently use the gradient tool in Lightroom and Photoshop to draw attention to the subject of my photograph. Gradients are extremely useful because they can help create gradual transitions between adjusted and non-adjusted areas. This blog won’t be a comprehensive look at gradients, but simply a demonstration of how I use them for one particular purpose. This blog assumes that you have a basic knowledge of either Lightroom or Photoshop. With those disclaimers, let’s get started with a quick description of what a gradient is.

For our purposes, a gradient is the gradual feathering of whatever adjustment is being made to the image. There are different types of gradients, but the one I use is the most straightforward. At the start of the gradient, 100% of the adjustment is applied, while at the end 0% is applied. There is an even feathering of the adjustment between start and end.

This will be better illustrated using an example. Here are before and after pictures to show you how I use a gradient to draw attention to my subject by darkening the outer areas of the image.

Original Image

Carnival model in an orange costume by pillars
Carnival model in an orange costume by pillars

Image after darkening the outer parts of the image using 3 gradients

Carnival model in an orange costume by pillars
Carnival model in an orange costume by pillars

For some of you, you may need to look a few times to see the effect. Notice that the transition from darkened to non-darkened areas is smooth. Here is how to create this effect in both Lightroom and Photoshop, starting with Lightroom:

1. First click on the gradient tool (pictured below). This will bring up the local adjustment menu.

Lightroom Gradient Tool

Lightroom Local Adjustment Tools

2. Adjust the exposure slider left, as in the image below.

Exposure Slider Down

3. Then drag the gradient from somewhere outside the image towards the subject. I usually overlap the gradient with the subject because the effect is hardly applied as you get to the center.

4. Fine-tune the adjustment using the exposure slider. Generally, you don’t want to go too obvious with the adjustment.

5. Hit “New” at the top of the menu and then repeat the adjustment from other sides and angles if you want. In this case, I’ve used three gradients, including from the right side, left side (but angled upward) and top left corner.

Screen with Picture

For Photoshop, below is one way among many to get the same basic effect.

1. Create a curves adjustment layer.

2. Click on the middle of the curve and drag the curve down to darken the whole image.

Photoshop Curve Layer and Curve

3. Click on the gradient tool button (pictured below)

Photoshop Gradient Button

4. Make sure your foreground color is set to white and your background color is set to black, as in the picture below. Hitting the letter “d” on the keyboard should re-set the foreground/background colors to these default settings.

Photoshop Colors

5. Then, make sure the layer mask is active by clicking on it and drag the cursor from outside the image towards the subject. This will result in a feathered mask.

6. Adjust the opacity of the curves layer until you get the desired effect.

Photoshop first layer adjusted

You might ask whether you can accomplish the same thing by creating a vignette. With a vignette, you have less control because it is a single adjustment rather than several adjustments from multiple sides, each controlled independently.

Lastly, you can use the same gradient techniques with a variety of adjustments, like contrast, saturation and a color fill layer, among others.

Coastline Moving Water Images

I love coastline images that include moving water. Although there are many ways to incorporate water into an image, I especially like combining blurred streaks of water bubbles with an interesting distant subject. Here is an example:

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Waves on Rialto Beach : Prints Available

Retreating water in front of sea stacks on Washington’s Rialto Beach

The above image works well because the sea stack makes a great subject out in the water. This is not always easy to find, which is why so many landscape photographers flock to the Pacific Northwest. If you are lucky enough to have access to this type of scenery, here is how to take these pictures:

You’ll Need…

  • A sturdy tripod. This is especially important because the camera needs to stay still during a relatively long exposure while standing in moving water.
  • A remote shutter trigger. This will help you keep your eyes on the waves to get your timing right, as well as minimize camera shake.
  • Depending on the lighting, you will most likely need a solid neutral density filter, such as a 4-stop or even a 10-stop for bright conditions.
  • A wide to ultra-wide lens (probably in the 14-24 range).
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End of Day at Rialto Beach : Prints Available

A beautiful sunset on the shores of Rialto Beach

Composing the Image…

  • Where you stand and what focal length you use will be driven by getting the water streaks composed properly in the foreground and the subject as an important part of the image. The picture above is an example of a good balance between foreground and distant subject.
  • You want to position yourself in a spot where the water passes you as the waves go in and out but is relatively shallow or dry after the water moves out. Yes, this means your feet and probably legs will get wet.
  • One good compositional technique is to use the water streaks as leading lines to the subject, such as in the image below.
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Rocks on Ruby Beach : Prints Available

Water retreating between rocks on the shores of Ruby Beach

Your Settings…

  • Set your camera to manual or shutter priority
  • Set ISO to 100
  • For starters, set your shutter speed to between 1/4 and 2 seconds. You can then adjust later based on what looks good.
  • You then have to arrive at a desired aperture. I generally choose between f/18 or f/20 so that the distant subject as well as the water streaks are in focus. Even though the foreground water is blurred, you still want it to be in focus.
  • If you are still overexposing the image, you can then bring in the neutral density filter(s) and re-adjust to your final aperture to get a proper exposure.
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Oceanside Sea Stacks at Sunset : Prints Available

Beautiful sunset on the Pacific at Oceanside

Timing the waves…

  • You want to shoot as the water is retreating back into the ocean or lake. When the water retreats, there are often bubbles which help the water streaks look more pronounced. You will have to work with the timing of when to trip the shutter, but I generally wait until the water is retreating around the tripod.
  • Keep checking what your images look like and make adjustments to your settings and timing.

Lastly, take a lot of pictures… each one will be different, so it is best to have more options to choose from.

Seeking Out Great Subjects

One of the best lessons I learned early on from photographer Jim Zuckerman is that great subjects form the foundation for great pictures. A great subject can make the difference between a snapshot and a work of art. Yes, there are some excellent photos out there of very ordinary things. But, quite often, the strength of your photo depends on the strength of your subject.

Don’t avoid taking pictures of ordinary things. But, take the extra step to seek out great subjects. Below are some examples of images where a great subject made all the difference in the final result.

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Red-Eyed : Prints Available

Close-up of colorful Red-Eyed Tree Frog

The picture above of the Red-Eyed-Tree-Frog is a compelling image because the frog is super cool. Put an ordinary frog on the same Heliconia flower and the picture is probably a tosser.

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One Eye Closed : Prints Available

Chinese man from the Longji area takes a break outside his house.

I’ve seen great pictures of ordinary people. However, there are people out there that are especially unique and compelling looking. I like to take pictures of older people that have been around the block a few times because they often make for amazing subjects. The older Chinese man in the picture above is no exception.

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Leaves Swirl at the Subway : Prints Available

Gold colors from the sand-filled pools at the Subway

The above picture is of a place known as “The Subway”. It is located in Zion National Park and involves a long hike, scrambling over and between rocks and across rivers. But, the place is otherworldly and resulted in a great picture that I’m glad is part of my portfolio.

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End of Day at Deadvlei : Prints Available

Evening light striking the orange dunes at Deadvlei

Of course, it is not always easy (or cheap) to get to far away places. But getting to places that most people haven’t been to adds to the impact of your photos. Deadvlei, pictured above, is such a place that leaves those that haven’t been there asking questions about what it is and where it is.